People of the River

A landmark history of Australia’s first successful settler farming area, which was on the Hawkesbury-Nepean River. Award-winning historian Grace Karskens uncovers the everyday lives of ordinary people in the early colony, both Aboriginal and British.

‘A masterpiece of historical writing that takes your breath away’
– Tom Griffiths

‘A majestic book’
– John Maynard

‘Shimmering prose’
– Tiffany Shellam

Dyarubbin, the Hawkesbury-Nepean River, is where the two early Australias – ancient and modern – first collided. People of the River journeys into the lost worlds of the Aboriginal people and the settlers of Dyarubbin, both complex worlds with ancient roots.

The settlers who took land on the river from the mid-1790s were there because of an extraordinary experiment devised half a world away. Modern Australia was not founded as a gaol, as we usually suppose, but as a colony. Britain’s felons, transported to the other side of the world, were meant to become settlers in the new colony. They made history on the river: it was the first successful white farming frontier, a community that nurtured the earliest expressions of patriotism, and it became the last bastion of eighteenth-century ways of life.

The Aboriginal people had occupied Dyarubbin for at least 50,000 years. Their history, culture and spirituality were inseparable from this river Country. Colonisation kicked off a slow and cumulative process of violence, theft of Aboriginal children and ongoing annexation of the river lands. Yet despite that sorry history, Dyarubbin’s Aboriginal people managed to remain on their Country, and they still live on the river today.

The Hawkesbury-Nepean was the seedbed for settler expansion and invasion of Aboriginal lands to the north, south and west. It was the crucible of the colony, and the nation that followed.



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